Senate agrees to ditch broadband users' privacy rights

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The House is expected to do the same, bowing to advertisers' demands

The Senate today voted 50-48 to ditch broadband privacy rules that the Federal Communications Commission issued last year, and the House is expected to follow suit.

Congress doesn't often move quickly but in this case, the Senate used the so-called Congressional Review Act to axe the privacy rules before they even had a chance to go into effect, bowing to the demands of advertisers who say the ability to track Americans' every move is vital to innovation.

“This is an important victory for all who benefit from the data-driven marketing economy, including tens of thousands of businesses and nonprofit organizations and hundreds of millions of consumers," said Emmett O’Keefe of the Data & Marketing Association, an advertising trade group. "Consumers understand the value that relevant ads provide, and put the value of the services they get for free on the internet at $1,200 per year."

The Consumer Federation of America wasn't so chipper and said the Senate had "used a sledgehammer, the Congressional Review Act, to smash hopes that Americans will finally have real control over the highly personal information that their broadband internet service providers (ISPs) can collect about them."

"There is no excuse for robbing Americans of these rights," CFA said in a statement, adding that it is "a shame that the majority of Senators voted to put special corporate interests ahead of the privacy interests of Americans."

Sledgehammer approach

The Congressional Review Act was enacted in 1996 as part of the Tea Party wing's "Contract With America" specifically to allow Congress to nullify regulations it doesn't like, using an expedited process that dispenses with hearings and other public review procedures. It also prohibits the rule being re-enacted without Congressional approval.

The rules adopted by the FCC applied only to broadband carriers, or Internet Service Providers (ISPs), not to websites. That irked the AT&Ts and Comcasts of the world, since it supposedly put them at a disadvantage in gathering surveillance information on their users.

The FCC under former chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee, took the view that consumers should have control over the data gathered by third parties.

"It's the consumers' information," Wheeler said, "and the consumer should have the right to determine how it's used."

Industry groups fought the proposal bitterly. USTelecom, a trade group, took to Twitter to denounce the rules as a "naked power grab."

At issue is information including consumers' health, finances, children, geolocation, web browsing and app usage history, Social Security numbers, and the content of their communications, CFA said. The FCC's rule would have required carriers to get customers’ affirmative consent. Equally important, the FCC said that ISPs can’t force customers to give up control of their data through “take it or leave it” terms of service.

"A step backwards"

Assuming the House acts as expected, those rules will soon be scrapped and consumers will be left to rely on the voluntary standards that the Data & Marketing Association says have been remarkably successful.

“Today’s vote in the Senate and expected approval in the House signal that our nation’s top policymakers recognize that our current system of responsible data use works," the DMA's O'Keefe said.

“The FCC’s ISP rules were a step backwards for consumers and should be repealed as they would risk disrupting the hugely successful Internet ecosystem that has developed under the existing framework. Congressional action to overturn these rules will ensure that organizations can continue to responsibly leverage data to meet the needs of their consumers.”

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